Wim Wenders: ‘I couldn’t accept I was German – but Hollywood taught me I’m a German Romantic’

Director Wim Wenders
Director Wim Wenders - Manuel Braun

Wim Wenders has his eyes closed when his face pops up on my computer screen – and keeps them shut for much of our interview. “I am sorry, I am a bit tired,” says the 78-year-old German director, speaking via Zoom from Lyon, where he has just added the Prix Lumière to a haul of trophies that already included, from various phases of his illustrious career, a Bafta, the Palme d’Or from Cannes and Venice’s Golden Lion.

His best-loved films invite us to view life from a widescreen perspective: Paris, Texas (1984) takes its hero (Harry Dean Stanton) out to the wind-sculpted wilds of the American desert to reconnect with his family, while in Wings of Desire (1987), angels perch on the skyscrapers of Berlin looking down longingly on a human world powered by love. Wenders tells me that he recently experienced his own unexpected lurch of perspective when, just a few days earlier, “the lens in my right eye gave up on me and dropped down to the bottom of my eyeball”. It was, he says with a minimalist shrug, “a shock. Suddenly I had no vision in my right eye, just a blur, unless I looked down at the ground, then the lens would swim into position again and my shoe was in focus.”

A swift operation appears to have fixed the problem; a relief, since “my vision is the pure essence of what I do. I could have gone on with one eye, but I would have had to give up the 3-D which would have been a shame.”

Wenders first shot in 3-D for Pina – his remarkable Oscar-nominated 2011 documentary about the German choreographer Pina Bausch – but he deploys the technology to even more astounding effect in the first of two new films he has coming out, a paean to the German artist Anselm Kiefer. In Anselm, Wenders’s camera roves around the sun-baked French landscape where Kiefer’s huge sculptures are installed, pivoting slowly around them in such high definition that we can almost feel the cool of their shadows falling upon us. We are also invited into the artist’s cavernous studio as his vast grey-yellow canvasses are wheeled by, clattering over the concrete floor.

Both Wenders and Kiefer were born in 1945 and grew up in the hushed atmosphere of national shame that followed the end of the Second World War. “We were both born into a country that didn’t exist anymore,” says Wenders. “We grew up surrounded by adults desperately trying to reinvent the future for themselves and the country, [acting as if] there was no past, that one could just forget it.”

One Who Set Forth – a 2007 documentary about Wenders’s early life, which is streaming on Netflix – offers a rather bleak window into the director’s family and the grey, industrial environment in which he was raised. We feel the ache in his remote relationships with his taciturn father and anxious mother; his lack of childhood friends; his early fascination with the cold philosophies of existentialism and surrealism, which in turn led to his first experiments with black-and-white filmmaking. So I’m not surprised when he tells me that, “for as long as I can remember, I was longing to get out of Germany and know the world”. He smiles and shakes his head. “It took me a long time and a huge detour – via living in America for a long time – to accept my being German.”

Wenders lived “unhappily” in America from 1977-1984. “I had my time in Hollywood, but I learned I didn’t have it in me to make those big American movies,” he says. “I would rather make small films and make decisions without having to ask permission. It taught me that I am a German Romantic.”

Romance is not a quality that’s often associated with Anselm Kiefer whose confrontational work draws heavily on the imagery of the Third Reich. Yet while critics have accused him of “having his Nazi cake and eating it”, Wenders believes the artist has been “courageous” in his willingness “to dig deep down into his country’s history and talk about the forgetting and the not forgetting; to face the past and remind people of it”.

He gouges his thumbs into the bags beneath his eyes as he insists that “history is the greatest teacher of the future. We need it right now, when all of Europe seems to forget that nationalism has brought mayhem and wars. This new nationalism rising everywhere is not going to help anything. I wish we took our history lessons more seriously.”

Nastassja Kinski in Paris, Texas (1984)
Nastassja Kinski in Paris, Texas (1984) - AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo

Wenders and Kiefer were planning to make a film together as long ago as 1991 – but it was derailed by a sudden crash in Kiefer’s career. “Anselm had had a huge success in America,” says Wenders. “He’d become the biggest painter alive as far as the Americans were concerned. Then he had a huge show at the National Gallery in Berlin and the German reviews were disastrous. They really tore him down and Anselm didn’t understand what was happening. He was very disturbed. Me too.”

Kiefer fled to the south of France where he would, over years, build the work which dominates Wenders’s film: in La Ribaute, just north of Nîmes, Kiefer’s most monumental art – vertiginous towers, ragged rubble, concentration camp sentry boxes and sulphurous grey paintings housed in sheds – sprawls over a 40-hectare site.

Wenders became entangled in controversy himself back in 2009 when he joined Woody Allen, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese and other cinema heavyweights in signing a petition calling for the release of Roman Polanski. The Chinatown director had been arrested in Zurich after American law enforcement sought his extradition over a 30-year-old underage sex case.

Wenders sags a little when I bring this up. “I thought it was such a f---ed-up story and the Americans were being so weird. That they let him live in Switzerland for 20 years and all of a sudden they demanded his extradition... I cannot defend his actions. But who am I to judge?” He spreads his palms slowly. “Anyway, I signed it because I thought they should leave him alone because it was a long time ago.”

Wenders, who lives in Berlin with his fifth wife Donata, has rarely followed a predictable path and, true to form, his other new film could hardly be more different to Anselm. Perfect Days – Japan’s first ever submission for the Foreign Language Oscar not to be made by a Japanese director – is a fictional hymn to the urban trees of Tokyo, some of which Hirayama, a toilet cleaner (a role that earned Koji Yakusho the Best Actor prize at Cannes) grows from shoots in his own small flat. Like Wenders, Hirayama finds “magic” in old analogue technology; the cassettes he plays of American rock music – Patti Smith and Lou Reed – earn him a certain cachet among the city’s youth.

“In Tokyo there are a lot of shops that will only sell analogue equipment now,” says Wenders. “They sell vintage cassettes at huge prices.” He’s delighted that “kids today are discovering there’s a big difference between a compilation tape and a playlist. A playlist is nothing more than an algorithm, even if it’s based on your tastes, whereas a compilation is a statement – a letter with a beginning, middle and an end – and you feel something, you tell a story. They realise the virtue of that.”

When Wenders lived in America, he and his brother, Klaus, would send each other weekly compilation tapes across the Atlantic. “That was our conversation,” he smiles. “We loved each other very much.” For the director of the influential 1999 documentary Buena Vista Social Club, “music is still the primary source of imagination”. When at home, Wenders likes to play his own old rock’n’roll records on a vintage jukebox, even though he admits “the sound sucks”.

But there is another reason why Wenders is looking forward to getting back to Berlin. “I have a tree in my garden there,” he says, eyes still closed. “A mighty ash, about 150 years old. At the moment it is losing its leaves and I’m not there to see them fall. But I will go home and hug it. I always hug it when I return. And in the spring, I will watch its leaves come into green again.”

Anselm previews nationwide on Dec 5, including a recorded Q&A between Wim Wenders and Hans Ulrich Obrist, and is released in cinemas on Dec 8. Perfect Days will follow on Feb 9

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